Researchers at Yale University found that both obesity and liver disease can be triggered by a family of proteins called inflammasomes that alter the balance of microbes in the stomach.
The study, published in the online version of Nature, suggests this altered intestinal environment can be passed on – making obesity an infectious condition.
The finding came to light during a study on stomach bacteria in mice.
The research team found that a deficiency in components of two particular inflammasomes in mice resulted in the development of an altered microbial community associated with increased bacteria.
This determined the severity of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and obesity in the mice.
Senior study author Professor Richard Flavell said: “When healthy mice were co-housed with mice that had altered gut microbes, the healthy mice also developed a susceptibility for development of liver disease and obesity.”
NAFLD is the result of metabolic syndrome, a collection of disorders that includes obesity and diabetes, and is the leading cause of chronic liver disease in the western world.
It is estimated that up to 30 million people suffer from NAFLD in the United States alone.
Prof. Richard Flavell said the next step will be to extend the research to see if the same effect can be seen in humans.
“We found, in mice, that targeted antibiotic treatment brought the microbial composition back to normal, and thus eased the liver disease. Our hope is that our findings may eventually lead to a treatment for humans.”
In the meantime, overweight adults should use the tried and tested formula of eating a healthy diet and performing half an hour of moderate exercise at least three times a week.